Gianluca Mancini has a nastiness to his game that’s reminiscent of his childhood idol—Marco Materazzi. It’s a nastiness that doesn’t necessarily translate into dirty play, but rather a tough and physical makeup instead. It’s the disposition of a player that’s not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the best of them. Someone who’s a real SOB to play against.
It’s that fearless pit bull-like nature that endeared Materazzi to Inter and Azzurri fans. Despite never being the best defender on his team, that innate toughness allowed the Lecce-born defender to always find important minutes on some of the best teams of his era.
The World Cup and Champions League winner became synonymous with the ability to get an edge on opponents both physically and mentally. Just ask Zinadine Zidane about the latter. Plus, he had the ability to score timely goals when his team needed them most despite being a central defender.
And much like Materazzi, Mancini seems to possess many of those same innate qualities and knack for a timely goal. Maybe it’s the fact that both had to cut their teeth in Italy’s lower divisions with Perugia before reaching Serie A. Nonetheless, whatever bred this nastiness and anger, both players thrive off it.
Mancini has that grinta that Roma has seemingly been lacking since the departures of players like Daniele De Rossi and Radja Nainggolan. That never say die attitude, which made that duo beloved among Romanisti.
However, a fighting spirit isn’t all that’s needed to make one a true success at a club like Roma. De Rossi, Nainggolan, and others before them had talent that, when coupled with grinta, made them stars for the Giallorossi. And those innate qualities, plus his true footballing talent, came to the forefront for Mancini in his second season in the Italian Capital.
Mancini has shown consistent growth all around the pitch in recent season, a trajectory that may lead to Mancini becoming a backline leader for Roma and Italy in the near future. A growth that will endear him to Romanisiti and Azzurri fans alike.
And now that one of Materazzi’s favorite managers, Jose Mourinho, will be coming to the Italian capital, we could see even greater growth from Mancini. Under Mourinho’s tutelage, Mancini could even surpass his idol and fellow #23, Materazzi.
Mancini by the Numbers
The most clear-cut way to measure a player’s growth is through the data; the pure statistics. And in Mancini’s case, the numbers speak for themselves.
With the 2020-2021 season now complete, we can compare Mancini’s totals from this season to last. Mancini played a similar amount of minutes in the league as last season, increasing his Serie A total to 2,852 in 33 matches from 2,784 in 31 matches. And when weighed per 90 minutes, Mancini’s numbers are up almost across the board.
With Mancini being a central defender, the obvious place to start is in his defensive statistics. The 24-year-old excelled on the right side of Roma’s back three this season. This season Mancini raised his tackles per match from 1.81 to 2.08 per 90. And a greater number of those tackles led to Roma recovering possession as his tackles won are up from 1.15 to 1.26 per 90.
Mancini's improvement is perhaps most evident in his ability to stop opposing dribbles. Last season, Mancini was dribbled past 1.12 times per 90 minutes. This season, he almost cut that number in half (.60), while raising his tackling percentage against dribblers from 30.6% to 45.7%.
Additionally, Mancini was more effective when pressuring opponents. Mancini is an aggressive defender who likes to pressure opponents and this season we saw Roma reap the benefits of that pressure. Mancini applied pressure to opponents almost 14 times per 90 minutes and the Giallorossi won back possession 34.8% of the time. That’s a 6.3% jump from last season, which translates to 1.15 more successful pressures per 90.
Another area where Mancini’s numbers improved this season is interceptions. Mancini intercepted 2.24 passes per 90, which is up more than one per match from 1.05 last season. That increase suggests that Mancini is reading opposing play better and getting into passing lanes to break up play earlier.
This increased ability to dissect attacking plays is likely why Mancini is actually blocking fewer shots or clearing fewer balls per 90 than last season. Meanwhile, his clearances are down from 3.91 to 3.38. That decrease could come down to less need for desperate blocks and clearances due to breaking up opponents’ play earlier in the sequence with tackles and successful pressures.
However, perhaps the most telling statistic that indicates Mancini is maturing as a defender is his drop in yellow cards. Last season Mancini racked up 16 yellow cards, which translated to 0.53 per match. That is down to 10 this season—an average of 0.32 per 90 minutes.
Mancini is far from a stay home defender and one of his best attributes is his ability to move the ball out of the back. Mancini’s overall passing performance, in terms of the traditional statistics, hasn’t changed much from last season as he completed 88.1% of his passes (down 1.2%) while attempting 7.5 more passes per 90 (62.7).
However, Mancini’s passing numbers have improved in areas that aren’t measured in traditional statistics. For example, Mancini raised his number of passes into the final third of the pitch from 2.60 to 4.61 per 90, while his progressive passes are up from 3.19 to 4.07 per 90.
Plus, the advanced metrics of xGChain90 and xGBuildup90 are up considerably from last season. Mancini has raised his xGChain90 from 0.23 to 0.36 and his xGBuildup from 0.19 to 0.32. Those upticks indicate that Mancini is more involved in passing sequences that lead to goalscoring chances.
Mancini has also shown improvement in his progressive carries and his carries into the final third. Mancini’s progressive carries are up from 3.52 to 4.86 and his carries into the final third rose from 0.76 to 1.20 per 90.
The rise in many of Mancini’s passing and possession statistics is probably down to Fonseca’s switch to the three-man backline last summer. For most of last season, Mancini played as one of the two central defenders in a four-man backline alongside Chris Smalling. However, in the three-man system Roma used for most of this season, he was able to venture further forward much as he did during his Atalanta days. However, no matter the formation Roma plays, Mancini’s ball-playing ability remains one of his best assets.
Just like his role in the back-three afforded Mancini more freedom to venture forward to get involved in Roma's passing plans, this freed allowed Mancini to become more involved in direct goal contributions—a nice added bonus for Roam.
The opening goal against Udinese was a perfect example of this understated aspect of Mancini's game. On Jordan Veretout’s goal, Mancini was able to venture forward and overlap Rick Karsdorp in order to swing in a perfect cross. That was one of two league assists for Mancini this season—he had no assists last season.
Mancini also scored four times this year, up from the one he scored in his first season in Rome and nearly equals the five he scored for Atalanta two seasons ago.
How Does He Compare to Other Defenders?
Compared to other Serie A defenders this season, Mancini rates very highly, especially in the areas in which he's shown steady growth.
Where Mancini shines the most is in his pressuring of opponents. Mancini’s 13.89 pressures per 90 rates in the 85th percentile of Serie A defenders. Meanwhile, his 4.83 successful pressures rates in the 86th. And where Mancini truly stands out is when he pressures opponents in the middle third of the pitch. His 6.88 pressure per 90 ranks in the 87th percentile. That number speaks to Mancini’s aggressive nature in trying to break up opponents’ play early.
Mancini also ranks in the 77th percentile or better in a few other defensive statistics. His 2.08 tackles and 1.26 tackles won per 90 both rank in the 78th and 77th percentile, respectively. Meanwhile, his 0.79 tackles in the middle third of the pitch is in the 84th percentile. Lastly, Mancini’s 2.24 interceptions and 4.35 tackles plus interceptions both rank in the 88th percentile.
Aside from Mancini’s solid defensive numbers, Mancini ranks even higher among center-backs with the ball at his feet. His 4.61 passes into the final third ranks in the 87th percentile and his 4.07 progressive passes are in the 89th. Mancini also contributed 0.92 shot creating actions per match, which was in the 82nd percentile league-wide among center backs.
Lastly, Mancini’s nose for goal also compares favorably to other center backs on the peninsula. His 0.13 goals (95th), 0.92 shots total (93rd), and 0.38 shots on target (97th) per 90 all ranked in the 93rd or better percentile.
To get a read on how Mancini rates compared to some of the other highly regarded young center backs in the league, I compared him to four players: Nikola Milenkovic of Fiorentina, Alessandro Bastoni of Inter, Mathijs De Ligt of Juve, and Cristian Romero of Atalanta.
When comparing Mancini’s defensive statistics against these four players, he stacks up very well. Only Romero ranks higher in tackles won, successful pressures, and interceptions per 90 minutes. That in itself makes for an interesting discussion since Romero now plays in Gasperini’s system in Atalanta—the same one Mancini excelled in before his arrival at Roma.
Mancini also scored the most goals of the group and put the most shots on target per 90. And in terms of passing, Mancini had the second most passes into the final third per 90 behind Bastoni’s 5.08 and led this group in progressive passing.
While statistics measure a player’s on-the-field performance, there are many things that aren’t so easy to quantify, but Mancini’s growth remains evident in this not so obvious categories.
Mancini is known as a student of the game, someone who’s always trying to improve, and there was no better indication than after last season's victory over Napoli at the Olimpico. Immediately after the match, Mancini could be seen on the sideline, iPad in hand, discussing a particular sequence with an assistant coach.
It’s likely that mentality, drive, and work ethic that has led to many of the improvements we’ve seen from Mancini this season. Those sorts of intangibles are typically innate to the game's top stars, and Mancini has proven to possess those subtle qualities that will allow him to continue to improve his game.
Additionally, Mancini presents himself as a natural leader. Even as a fairly young player Mancini can often be seen engaging referees on behalf of his teammates. His grinta and fight to the last whistle attitude have made Mancini a leader by example on the pitch as well.
A couple instances jump out in this regard. Against Inter, it was Mancini who delivered a crucial headed goal in order to draw with the Nerazzurri late. Meanwhile, while the rest of the team struggled against Juventus at the Allianz Stadium, Mancini was one of the few bright spots for Roma, fighting to the end in a match that was a lost cause.
That leadership ability wasn’t lost on Paulo Fonseca and his staff either, as they gave Mancini the captain's armband on multiple occasions when either Lorenzo Pellegrini or Bryan Cristante were injured or sub-offed early. As Mancini climbs the hierarchy with the Giallorossi, he will likely, in due time, become the vice-captain to Pellegrini.
Having recently turned 25-years-old, Mancini is far from a finished product. Defenders generally tend to mature later than their attacking counterparts. And the numbers show that Mancini took the next step in his maturation towards becoming a top Serie A center back.
The drop in yellow cards combined with his increase in tackles, interceptions, and successful pressures indicate that Mancini has begun to harness his aggression and physicality without backing down from challenges. Mancini is cleaning up his game, while helping his side break up opponents play at a higher rate. The ultimate compliment for a young burgeoning defender.
With Mourinho set to take over for the upcoming season, Mancini will likely be asked to play differently than he did under Paulo Fonseca—especially with a transition to a traditional back four. However, based on his character make-up, head for the game, and physical skills, Mancini looks poised to be a favorite of Mourinho’s much like his idol, Materazzi, once was.
Plus, with Mourinho’s knack for getting his sides to play a defensively responsible game, Mancini should develop even more as a central defender. It’ll be interesting to see if Mancini can turn into Roma’s version of Walter Samuel, Ricardo Carvalho, or Sergio Ramos from some of The Special One’s greatest sides.
He may not ever be as good as that trio, but his maturation this season leads me to believe that he can be the rock at the back for the Giallorossi and perhaps Italy for years to come.